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TERRY COWGILL

What becomes of the Republican Party in Connecticut? It exists in a blue state with a Democratic Party that occupies the governor’s mansion and holds solid majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly. Democrats also control the White House and both houses of Congress.

The last time a Republican held statewide office was when Gov. M. Jodi Rell left the Capitol on New Year’s Day, 2011. The last Republican U.S. senator was Lowell Weicker, who was defeated in a reelection bid by Joe Lieberman in 1988. Chris Shays, the last GOP congressman, was denied reelection in 2008 when he lost to Democrat Jim Himes.

On the state level, Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives continuously since 1987. Republicans gained a majority in the Senate for only two years in the ‘90s and a tie from 2017 to 2018, but Democrats have otherwise dominated the upper chamber for nearly 45 years. The longest-serving Republican governor of the last 25 years, John Rowland, has gone to prison twice.

Early in the new year, a group of supporters of then-President Donald Trump ransacked the U.S. Capitol in an effort to prevent the Senate from certifying a presidential election that Trump clearly lost. A Republican president had encouraged rioters to violently disrupt the business of another branch of government that was performing its constitutional duty. 

The events of Jan. 6 did not sit well with most people in the land of steady habits. The GOP in Connecticut has lost more than 6,500 voters since Election Day 2020, nearly a 300% increase over the number who defected during the three-month period after the 2016 presidential election. 

Between the Jan. 6 riot and Feb. 11, 5,060 voters left the Republican Party in the state, with most deciding to be unaffiliated, according to the office of retiring Secretary of the State Denise Merrill. In addition, a handful of prominent municipal officials, including a group of West Hartford Republicans, left the party in disgust.

The then-chair of the Republican State Central Committee, J.R. Romano, was a Trump supporter who resigned abruptly only a few days after the insurrection. The committee ultimately reacted by appointing a new chair, Stratford attorney and longtime GOP political operative Ben Proto, who was not only a Trump supporter but ran his state campaign in 2016. Inasmuch as Trump had a 30% approval rating in the state at the time of the 2020 election, Connecticut Democrats, independents and disgruntled Republicans will no doubt be happy to remind voters of Proto’s former position during next year’s campaign. Indeed, the Senate Democrats have already started:

“The Connecticut Democrats are aware of their failed policies and when backed into a corner they scream ‘Trump,’ hoping it will distract voters from their failures,” Proto wrote in a CTNewsJunkie op-ed in February. “Unfortunately, Connecticut Republicans have played into that narrative and failed to focus our message on how Republican policies and values will benefit Connecticut.”

There is some truth to what Proto says. It is true that most state Republicans are quick to run away from Trump, but so too, do many Democrats reflexively raise the specter of the orange monster when talking about the opposing party. If they want to succeed politically and in terms of policy, both parties need to come up with coherent strategies that go beyond attacking the other side’s most obvious weaknesses and come up with plausible ideas for the future that include solutions to long-term structural problems with excessive spending and wobbly revenue streams. 

Proto has also taken to the airwaves to introduce himself to Connecticut voters, appearing last week on WTNH’s “Capitol Report” and yesterday on Fox 61’s “The Real Story.” The new chairman insisted that Connecticut’s GOP is actually “in a lot better shape than people think it is” and though its “numbers may not be large, our ability to move legislation or to stop really bad legislation” persists and “we have great ideas.” 

Proto noted that fully 50% of the state’s municipalities have a GOP mayor or first selectman, or otherwise control the town government. Still, those are mostly small towns and suburbs that lack the numbers to get GOP candidates elected statewide.

With some justification, Proto was bullish about the upcoming special election to fill the state Senate seat vacated by Greenwich Democrat Alex Kasser, who strangely resigned last month after having won a second term only a few months earlier. Before Kasser’s election in 2018, the seat had been in Republican hands for several decades.

Interestingly, this is not the first time the Connecticut GOP has been harmed by a loon at the top of the ballot. In 1964, with Barry Goldwater as the GOP presidential nominee, not only did incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson win by the largest popular vote percentage since 1820, but Democrats gained enough seats in the House and Senate to give themselves a veto-proof majority in both chambers.

The day after that election, the New York Times reported that “A bitter fight for control of the strife‐torn Republican party in Connecticut was in prospect today in the aftermath of yesterday’s Democratic sweep.”

Former Republican Gov. John Davis Lodge lost his bid to unseat Thomas Dodd for U.S. Senate and “[carried] into office all the Democrats running for the state’s six Congressional seats.” Lodge’s campaign manager attributed his boss’ loss to Goldwater at the top of the ticket and “the fact that Connecticut has never been a right‐wing, Conservative state,” the Times reported.

In 2022, the best hope for Republicans in Connecticut is to run on fiscal responsibility while acknowledging wholeheartedly that the state must maintain its infrastructure and continue to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. But as I have pointed out elsewhere on these pages, Gov. Ned Lamont will be tough to beat because, much to the aggravation of his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly, he has resisted more broad-based tax increases.

In a related development — and much to my surprise — a recent poll commissioned by the conservative Club For Growth showed the 2018 GOP gubernatorial nominee, Bob Stefanowski, leading presumptive candidate and former House Minority Leader Themis Klarides 47-18 in a head-to-head match-up. 

Interestingly, the poll also indicated that 57% of the respondents were less likely to vote for Klarides when informed that her husband is a senior executive at Eversource, the state’s largest money-grubbing, underperforming and much detested electric utility.

Carry on, dear readers.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.